A Brief History Of Modern Retro

This feature was written for PC Format magazine what feels like a million years ago. It’s a very broad overview of some of the choicest morsels of PC gaming in the late 80s to mid 90s, primarily the pre-3D age, and aimed at those who didn’t grow up with a beige box rather than at those who did. Clearly too, it’s more shaped by my own experiences and influences than by anything like objectivity. My objectivometer must have been out for repairs that week. I repost it here with minor updates, and tired resignation about how many comments will say “what, no game X?” No wordcount in the world is big enough to encompass everything that should be mentioned – but it’ll certainly be useful if the comments thread becomes a juicy list of olden gems for other curious readers to hunt down.

PC gaming is doomed. No, really, it’s going to cop it any day now. It may even have expired while you were distracted by this introduction. After all, people have been predicting its demise for some 20 years now – it’s all piracy this, expensive hardware that, niche appeal this, compatibility problems that… Oh, shuddup. PC gaming isn’t going anywhere. The platform’s infinitely adaptable, it’s currently hand in hand with the dramatic rise of casual, ad-supported, digital download and subscription-based games, and it’s got a back catalogue several hundred orders of magnitude huger than any other gaming system.

In terms of that incredible back catalogue, PC gaming history is currently undergoing two very important changes that may rescue it from the impotence of dusty floppy disks and pop-up-infected abandonware sites.

First, PC gamers’ values are changing – the audience is moving away from the graphics-hungry and into a breed that’s more prepared to judge a game on its less superficial merits. In short, a game consisting of 320×240 pixels, each the size of a baby’s fist, no longer causes quite so many people to scoff dismissively at it. Secondly, digital distribution services – notably Valve’s Steam and the great-in-the-States-but crap-over-here Gametap – are gradually adding classic games to their online stores – legal, free from floppy disks, and dirt-cheap. Recently, we’ve also been blessed by the arrival of bouncing baby Good Old Games, a retro-only download service specifically dedicated to re-releasing history’s finest PC games – made to work with modern operating systems and entirely DRM free. A slight spot of whimsy and a few quid is all it takes to enjoy yesterday’s finest. While it’s early days for this, things can only get better (as a relevant aside, in the year in which that terrible song was released, PC gamers were enjoying the likes of Fallout, Total Annihilation, Diablo and Quake II – defining standards of their respective genres). The past is indeed another country – but, when it comes to old PC games, lately we’re talking more Isle of Man than North Korea.

Until these electro-stores are fully stocked, plenty of options remain to locate your desired fragment of yesterday – ebay, second-hand stores, free fan remakes and mumblebittorrentmumbleabandonwaremumble, for instance. Somewhat sadly, most old PC games don’t seem to retain much value, even for mint-condition boxes. I’d be lucky to get a tenner for one of my proudest possessions, my still-sealed copy of Dungeon Keeper. Still, that’s great news for buyers. But where should they start? 20 years of PC gaming is an impossibly large subject, so how we’re going to approach it is by breaking it into key genres (albeit composited ones) and looking at just a few of the games which defined them, or alternatively took it to interesting places that have been sadly left unexplored since.

Let’s leave the most obvious games – yer Dooms, yer C&Cs, yer Half-Lives – unspoken in favour of games that are less-often name-dropped. Inevitably, many games you think of as crucial won’t be in here, but that’s not because they’re not crucial – it’s purely an inevitable consequence of taking a broad, brief sweep over this impossibly vast subject. For the sake of argument, history began in 1987 – a year that saw, amongst other epochal events, the dawn of VGA and its wondrous 640×480, 256-colour pixels, LucasArts define point’n’click adventure games with Maniac Mansion and the first realtime 3D RPG, Dungeon Master. Much of import precedes that, of course, especially on the PC’s forerunners/sometime peers such as the ZX Spectrum and Amiga, but let’s stick to the modern age of PC retro, if that isn’t too paradoxical.

To start at the most obvious – but, in some ways, least interesting – point, let’s talk action games. The earliest first-person-shooter was 1973’s Maze War, but it was id software’s 1991 fantasy shooter Catacomb 3D which really birthed the form as we know it. Until then, we didn’t even get an on-screen hand reinforcing the sense that the player /was/ the game’s character. From that came Wolfenstein 3D and Doom and – well, you know the rest. It’s the point between then and now that contains lost wonders.

1994’s Marathon is a fine example. One of the earliest games by future Halo creator Bungie, though this didn’t prove a runaway success on PC, it was one of the first post-Doom FPS games to introduce elements beyond repeatedly shooting monsters in the face. Friendly AI characters, alternate fire modes, co-op play, swimming and, particularly, a strong, layered plot (which was a major inspiration for System Shock and Halo, amongst others) made it an altogether more grown-up affair than other Doomlikes. Though its superior sequel Durandal was the only Marathon game to see an official Windows release, Bungie now offers free versions of all three instalments’ Mac versions, which fans duly ported to PC. Download links and a setup guide lurk over here.

Skip ahead to the second half of the 1990s and 3D-accelerated gaming is in full swing. There were a great many ways to kill pretend things – including expertly-adapted licensed fare such as 1999’s Aliens versus Predator and 1997’s Star Wars: Jedi Knight. 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project, from the dearly-missed Looking Glass Studios (the key members of which went on to form Ion Storm, the developer behind Deus Ex), was a revelation in such violent climes. Essentially the design document for the subsequent decade of stealth games – count Splinter Cell, Hitman and Assassin’s Creed among its followers – murder took a distinct backseat to using the environment to create your own non-linear path through the game. Playing a character poorly suited to direct combat, using shadow and sound to avoid beefcake enemies, and emphasising the need for patience and attentiveness over reflex gives Thief a pounding tension few games have touched.

On top of that, it’s about unified design and atmosphere to create a sense of place and menace, whereas so many of its peers contented themselves with a jumble-sale muddle of second-hand sci-fi ideas. If you’re spitting like a bucktoothed viper at the idea of 1998 polgyons, direct your ocular organs here, where there’s an ongoing project to remake Thief in the shadowtastic Doom 3 engine – they released a demo version not long ago.

One of the most interesting areas of PC gaming is the crossover point from FPS into other genres. System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are the best-known examples of introducing roleplaying elements – tailoring the character to your own tastes, managing inventories, handing choice of action and path to the player… – into a realtime action environment, but point your mind earlier than that. 1992’s Ultima Underworld, another Looking Glass effort, offered a genuine 3D world (an early build of which was id’s ‘inspiration’ for Wolfenstein 3D) and first-person-perspective monster-stabbing augmented by RPG trappings and non-linear exploration. Most recently, the likes of Oblivion and STALKER owe a great debt to UU and its sole sequel, but fans feel it’s never been done better. Make your own mind up with one of the various remakes.

Two years later, the first System Shock was doing things with environmental interaction – stacking boxes to form a ladder to higher places, for instance – that most games don’t offer even now. While you’ll need to have your own moral dilemma about whether or not you should download the so-called abandonware version of Shock, it is worth mentioning that there’s a near-complete fan project that makes it run happily under modern Windowses and with improved graphics here. Better still is the recent mouse-look mod, which finally rids of the cumbersomely archaic control that have held it back for so long. Or, if you want an absurdly violent, foul-mouthed alternative to these more cerebral FPS+ wonders, 1999’s Quake 2-powered Kingpin: Life Of Crime sported branching dialogue, the buying and selling of weapons and recruitable NPC companions alongside its granny-baiting blood’n’maiming.

For RPGs themselves, well, there’s a wealth. No platform has ever done roleplaying as well as the PC. With Fallout 3 due later this year from the makers of Oblivion, now’s the time to play the first two post-apocalyptic open-worlders (both available for stupidly low prices at GoG). They’re turn-based and proud of it, which makes combat a tactical matter of how you’ve developed your character’s abilities and the best way to approach a given situation, rather than simply how fast you can click fire. Most of all, it offers choice – how your character behaves, who his allies and enemies are, and the reputation he has in the eyes of the game’s struggling populace. It’s also vicious and funny, and still the aesthetic benchmark for any game set on a scorched Earth.

More traditional fantasy roleplaying is best served by Ultima VII, the best of the long-running series that earned Richard Garriot his name, and one with which Looking Glass/Ion Storm big fish Warren Spector was heavily involved. As with the Fallout games, there’s little need to stick to the straight and narrow here – this is roleplaying that encompasses morality, not simply whether you fight with a sword or a bow. It’s also a world in which you can do interact with pretty much anything in the game – whether it’s to craft your own food or weapons, or just strumming away on a unclaimed lute. The presentation may be crude, but modern RPGs generally lag far behind it in most other respects. It’s another game whose fans are battling to keep it alive – while you’ll need to track down the original game files yourself, the Exult engine will make ‘em run tickety-boo in your new-fangled modern operating system. Another semi-free-form RPG milestone is 1993’s Betrayal at Krondor (whose creators later went on to create the Tribes series), which blends first-person exploration with third-person fighting. For a time, it was made available for free to promote its sequel, but the original mirrors are down. Others, though not officially sanctioned, can be found quite easily. Or how about the clunky but clever Legends of Valor, a free-roaming roleplayer set entirely within a single city? Or the four-player robot-shooting of Hired Guns?

While it doesn’t offer the freedom of a Fallout or Ultima VII, arguably the aged RPG to play if you haven’t is 1999’s Planescape: Torment. A beautifully-written tale of guilt, identity and atonement that’ll tear your heart out, stamp on it repeatedly then roughly shove it back inside your shattered ribcage, this is a game about words more than deeds. 800,000 of ‘em, to be precise. There’s nothing else quite like Planescape, and it’s an essential staple of any discussion about gaming narrative. Out of print for ages due to publisher red tape, it finally managed a re-release very recently.

Stepping sideways into strategy, again we’re in territory that only the PC has mapped more than the barest bones of. You’ve got Battlezone combining FPS, RTS and military sim, or the absolutely, awe-inspiringly unique Sacrifice (example spell: ‘bovine intervention’) boldly mixing action, roleplaying, comedy and a thousand new ideas a minute in alongside more familiar real-time strategy tropes. Both threw down experimental gauntlets no-one else dared to pick up. On the more tactical side of the coin is Syndicate, from gone-but-not-forgotten British uber-developer Bullfrog – a still gloriously immoral real-time squad tactics game that makes GTA look like Theme Park. Peter Molyneux’s been muttering about reviving Syndicate’s satirical dystopia of corporate oppression and violence, but until (if ever) that happens, there’s a fan remake in the works, with the first level now complete.

More conventional RTS nostalgia is perhaps best served by soon-to-be-sequelled Starcraft – still the template for ultra-balanced multiplayer strategising with distinct playable races, not just differently-coloured clones of each other – and Dune 2, the father of commanding and conquering, and even today surprisingly way ahead in terms of offering a convincing narrative explanation for resource-collection and perma-war. There’s an impressive free remake of the latter at d2tm.duneii.com. Another one to look up is 2000’s Ground Control, one of very few RTSes to ditch resource management in favour of using your cunning to blow up tanks with a fixed retinue. Its sequel was miserably generic (developers Massive would eventually redeem themselves with Word In Conflict), but did have one thing going for it – the original game was released for free to promote it. Grab it from here.

It would be remiss of us to mention turn-based strategy without bringing up Sid Meier, but frankly the recent Civilization 4’s good or enough, or you can dabble with FreeCiv, for a less accessible but simpler game more in keeping with the original Civ. But what you should really do is play 1994’s Colonization, a Civ sequel that centres solely on conquest of the New World. While Civ tries to encompass everything, and logic is gradually eroded over time even as complexity snowballs, Colonization is utterly focused. You’ve a single goal – win independence from your mother nation, and the journey to that is a fascinating arc of scrabbling out a few pennies from trade or conquest, building up to self-sufficiency and finally to all-out war. It was revisited a couple of years back, but its so obviously being a mod of Civ IV meant it didn’t tickle the relevant parts of the brain as well as the original. You may be better off with the open source fan remake, FreeCol.

Management you’re probably more aware of- your Theme Parks and Hospitals, primarily. Its last great gasp was 2001’s tragically underappreciated Startopia, which remains perhaps the best way to experience this slumbering genre. The curious no-man’s land between strategy and management gaming, meanwhile, is occupied by Dungeon Keeper, another Bullfrog game. The central gimmick – you play the bad guy, an unseen lord of the underworld raising a bestial army to fend off do-gooder heroes – is a little too panto to pay off, but what it’s really got going for it is that you’re trying to impose order onto chaos. Your monsters either don’t want or are too stupid to be managed, underground cave systems are not ideally suited to logical architecture, and your most powerful unit, the Horned Reaper, will just as happily slay your own troops as he will the enemy’s. It’s a juggling act, only the balls are on fire, someone keeps throwing rocks at you and you’ve only got one hand.

This article approaches its end far too quickly: a hundred thousand dusty treats go unmentioned. For adventure gaming, eschew the more obvious Monkey Island/Sam & Max fare and nose at the branching options of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, the heartstring-tugging of the Longest Journey, the fiendish puzzles and oh-so-French wit of Gobliins 2, or the artful grimness and wealth of choices of Blade Runner. Aerial pursuits, meanwhile, are best exemplified by TIE Fighter’s coolly wicked space simming, Privateer’s open-universe exploring’n’fighting’n’trading or Stunt Island’s inimitable fusion of setpiece daredevilling and proto-movie-editing. For sport, see Speedball 2 or Sensible World of Soccer. And on and on and on….

If there’s one undisputed must-play from the annals of PC gaming though, X-COM is it. First game UFO: Enemy Unknown remains the best of the brief series, but sterling sequel Terror From The Deep can be had for a few quid from Steam. Famed for its artful juggling of global strategising (building and upgrading a network of bases to track alien invasions, and research new weapons to defeat ‘em), astoundingly tense turn-based squad combat and gentle roleplaying, nothing’s come close to X-COM in the 15 years since, though many have tried. It’s the nexus of all PC gaming, a super-smart meeting point of action, strategy, RPG, management that promised a future of constant creativity, but instead we saw one that splintered into feature-creep variations on each of those single themes. Only now, with the new surge of indie gaming exploring places big-budget studios fear to tread, are we seeing a return to the inventiveness of early 1990s PC gaming. Go remind yourself quite how incredible a time it was.

How To Find ‘Em

Chances are you still own a collection of classic DOS games on your shelf, still in the cellophane and everything. What? You don’t? Well, you’re screwed then, outside of what’s on the download services mentioned earlier. Fortunately, so-called abandonware – old games that are supposedly legal to download for free – is astonishingly easy to come by on the internet. However, in most cases a given game hasn’t been signed off as abandoned by its creator, it’s simply that its creator hasn’t been/can’t be contacted for permission. Just a couple of years ago you could turn up pretty much anything with the slightest spot of Googling, but publishers are getting increasingly vicious about ‘protecting’ their old games of late. In many cases, those publishers don’t exist anymore, which leaves a vast number of games in copyright limbo. They aren’t legally abandonware, but you’re arguably not impacting anyone’s income by downloading them. The moral choice is yours. Just remember that ‘it said abandonware on the website’ wouldn’t constitute a valid legal excuse.

What you are safe with is commercial games that have been released for free. Wikipedia keeps a vast list of these, which constitutes more hours than you could count of happy cost-free gaming.

The third option is eBay and similar. While there’s a gradual creep in the values of rarer or more treasured games, you can turn up a working copy of most titles for an easy tenner, and a good-nick boxed copy for around the £20 mark. There’s a vague sense that collectormania could hit vintage PC gaming any day now and these prices will go crazy, so now’s the time to get bidding if you do fancy owning your own classics archive. In fact, it’s when you do own a game, especially when it’s on nearly-obsolete media like floppy disks, or you don’t want to peel off the cellophane, that grabbing a download from an abandonware site makes the most sense.

How To Play ‘Em

A surprising number of oldies will play nice with Windows XP, though Vista’s proving a hurdle too many for a great deal more. The first thing to try it your classic of choice is too bewildered by the new is compatibility mode – right-click on its main executable, choose the Compatibility tab and experiment with the various different versions of Windows on offer until (and if) you find one that works.
If you don’t, an easy option remains. DOSBOX emulates the old command-line, minimal-memory environment these games were made for, and it’s now slick enough to make most DOS games play near-perfectly.

Unfortunately, it does require a spot of manual tinkering. Grab it from dosbox.com and install it somewhere obvious on your hard drive. Then copy the game you want to play to a short-named folder on the root of your drive – e.g. C:\colonization. Launch DOSBOX and you’ll be met with the horror of a command prompt. Don’t worry – all you need to do is type mount c c:\xcom. Replace the first ‘c’ with another drive letter if you want – it’s only virtual, so it doesn’t matter. The game folder should then be treated as a drive of its own – in this example, type c:, press enter, then type dir to see what’s there. Look for a .bat, .com or .exe that will run the game – type its name and it should play. If you’re having speed problems, press Ctrl+F12 as many times as necessary to increase emulated CPU speed. If that doesn’t help, try turning up frame-skipping – Ctrl+F8 will do that. If all that sounds like too much hassle, try out the D-Fend Reloaded GUI frontend – this’ll let you create permanent launchers for each of your DOS games, with none of that command line nonsense.

If it’s specifically classic LucasArts adventure games you’re wanting to play again – and you’re really not alone in this, as Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max et al inspire a fanatical following to this day – you’re really in luck. SCUMMvm is a splendid app dedicated to running these (and, of late, a slew of third-party point’n’clickers from that era) in modern Windows, complete with upscaling to high resolutions, and it’s incredibly simple to use. Find it here.

145 Comments

  1. Meat Circus says:

    If you had a PC in those days, it means you didn’t have an Amiga.

    And if you didn’t have an Amiga, you were RUBBISH and SMELT and your dad was probably a businessman or an accountant who wanted you to use computers for sensible things like spreadsheets and NOT playing groundbreaking games and having bucketloads of fun like all your friends with their Amigas.

    I PITY YOU.

    • Starky says:

      I had a PC and an Amiga, do I win?

      Amiga 1200 eventually expanded with the 68040 expansion card and 8 megabytes of ram – oh and a 200MB hard-drive (later upgraded to 2.1Gb).

      And more pirated software/games than you could shake a stick at, a pile probably only slightly larger than the games and software I actually owned.

    • Sarlix says:

      My best friend was the rich boy who had the Amiga 500, he used to play Alien Breed while I looked on in awe and when it came to my turn we had to go outside an play football! The injustice is to large to even contemplate.

    • Chaz says:

      I was an Amiga boy right up until Doom got released, when I promptly became a PC gamer, and then I bought a CD Rom drive specifically so that I could play Command and Conquer. My first multiplayer experiences came courtesy of C&C and a null modem cable. Of course in those days you only needed one copy of the game to play on 2 machines as each Nod and GDI disk worked on its own.

      Realms of the Haunting always remains one of my more memorable but rarely mentioned games, it got 96% in PC Zone too. Still got my copy, so I shall have to see if I can get it running again.

    • Tom Camfield says:

      I would concur with Meat Circus, but he didn’t mention AP. Oversight, or a (“Michael Jackson” – Ed) fan?

  2. Meat Circus says:

    However, I do recommend that System Shock mouselook patch for anyone that’s never played SS. I tried Shock for the first time a few weeks ago, having abandoned it so many times before due to lack of mouselook.

    But with Mouselook, and running at 1024×768, the game is now, if not fresh, at least completely accessible to the modern gamer. And you realise how (a) ahead of its time it was, and (b) what an astonishingly joyous romp it is even now.

    You are not welcomed here, insect. Remove yourself.

    • frymaster says:

      Look at you, hacker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?

      I have that sound clip on my phone… it’s the main reason I never use shuffle when listening to music, because if that comes on unexpectedly i’m liable to wet my pants

    • Bret says:

      I had my computer, out of nowhere, play that clip after The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

      I have a guess at why, but I’m not sure. And really, wiping the computer’s memory a couple times after it started spontaneously quoting SHODAN was probably underkill.

    • Tei says:

      I use to have “The Death Star plans are not in the main computer” for fatal errors in Windows 3.1
      Darth Vader and General Protection Fault where friends on my comp.

  3. Miker says:

    Hmm, my laptop at home was apparently stolen, leaving me with only a crappy netbook for Spring Break. Maybe System Shock (with MOUSELOOK!) will keep me entertained.

  4. Bret says:

    Hey!

    Marathon!

    Man, stumbling on that series was one of my luckier breaks when it came to the internet. Durandal’s probably the best of the three games, with the introduction of the shotguns, but the whole thing is a hoot.

    • Shalrath says:

      What I find bizarre about marathon is that the writing is some of, if not ‘the’, best in a game ever. And it’s in a goddamn Doom style corridor shooter.

  5. ShaunCG says:

    This post excites me. That is all. If I started listing more suggestions I’d never stop.

    That said… a friend of mine is undertaking a project to play games he wouldn’t normally play, in order to bust out of his comfort zone and have a crack at classics he’s missed. I’ve nominated StarSiege as for my money it’s the greatest of all the 90s mech sims, even if it was a flawed masterpiece. I highly recommend others check it out if they can.

  6. Ffitz says:

    X-com. Still my favourite game ever (except my version is TFTD instead of EU).

    I’d like to add Darklands to the list: an astonishing but little known (these days) medieval RPG from then-giants-of-the-gaming-world-Microprose.

    • EaterOfCheese says:

      +1 Darklands. Still got my original box, floppies, and hint book :) Loved tha game.

      +1 to just about every game in the Ultima series. Esp. Ultima 7 & U7 part2, Underworlds 1 & 2.

  7. AbyssUK says:

    Here is my list of games you need to play before you die.

    1. X-COM UFO: Enemy Unknown
    2. X-COM UFO:Enemy Unknown
    3.X-COM UFO: Enemy Unknown
    4. X-COM UFO: Enemy Unknown
    5. X-COM UFO: Enemy Unknown

    That’s right 5 times, no more! if you play for a 6th time its beauty becomes too much to bare and you break down and cry at all the wasted time you’ve spent playing games that were not X-COM.

    That is all.

    • Psychopomp says:

      It’s nothing compared to Starcraft!

    • AbyssUK says:

      @Psychopomp – I hope you feel dirty for even bringing Starcraft into a conversation about a game with such brilliance as X-COM.

    • Meat Circus says:

      I’m too spack handy chop tubes to deal with the difficulty of X-COM.

      What it needed was a, I dunno, variable difficulty slider OR SOMETHING.

    • Barts says:

      Oddly enough I have played it in ’93 when it came out, in ’96 when I was old enough to try to fight it as a man should, in ’05 under Linux version of Dosbox, in ’08 on my Windows computer and this very year on a new Macbook Pro. Does this mean I cannot play it anymore?… *cries*

    • Bret says:

      Look, we all know how lame it is X-Com is stuck on easy, but you learn to live with it.

      It’s not too heavy a price to pay.

  8. Nick says:

    Great article. I’ll toss in another Bullfrog classic: Magic Carpet! Deformable terrain ahoy with earthquake spells and set fire to trees with fireballs/meteors. Fly over some stones and get attacked by giant wasps that spawned as a result.. the game has it all and more. The sequel wasn’t as good for some reason.

    One day I’ll get John Walker to sign my copy of Force Commander.

    • Alex says:

      Loved it. Played it to death while procrastinating on C++ projects. Had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.

    • Shalrath says:

      THANK YOU.

      I’ve been trying to remember who made that without looking it up.

  9. Jimbo says:

    Only the five richest kings of Europe owned PCs before the 90’s. Anything good that came out before about ’95 was more than likely being played on an Amiga.

  10. Colthor says:

    Frontier: Elite 2 is still king of the space not-purely-shooty games (except, possibly, Frontier: First Encounters, which was the same but with more toys, probably better graphics, and an optional plot you’ll probably never find without a walkthrough).

    They were made shareware some time ago, and a mirror claims to be:
    link to frontierastro.co.uk

    • JuJuCam says:

      I was never into the Elites so much as I was into Star Control 2. One of my favourite gaming moments ever was showing the Thraddash who was boss, and sending them against their ex-bosses and watching both spheres of influence shrink on the world map.

  11. Sajmn says:

    Man, they don’t make ’em any-more like they used to. Reading this article makes it even more obvious how there are so many possibilities for games beyond the today-popular grind and slaughterfest.

    How ironic that back then, many ideas couldn’t be realised because the hardware wasn’t powerful enough, and yet today we have more than enough power for any gameplay mechanic but the high development costs (which are linked to the insatiable graphics-craze) are making any innovative designs too risky for the publishers.

    Bah, just give us Battlezone III
    (cuz Carrier Command will likely suck. Keeping my fingers crossed though)

  12. Colthor says:

    (Oh, the D:Ream song was released in 1993. It was just used for the election in 1997.)

  13. Fenchurch says:

    @Nick

    Oh you are awful… But I like you.

  14. pignoli says:

    ShaunCG said:I’ve nominated StarSiege as for my money it’s the greatest of all the 90s mech sims, even if it was a flawed masterpiece. I highly recommend others check it out if they can.

    Well, that makes two of us. I thought for the longest time that I was the only person in the world who appreciated this rough gem. Managed to smash my disc 2 though:( so I doub’t I’ll ever get to play it again, short of GoG offering it.

  15. zzzzzz says:

    The best way to use Dosbox is to get a Frontend,for example D-fend reloaded (google it,the spamfilter eats all my hyperlinks),which already comes with dosbox in it.

    one unmentioned Classic :
    Panzer general

    • Fumarole says:

      Steel Panthers on DOS sucked away many years of my life. PCs were made to play hex games.

  16. Hentzau says:

    There is no company I mourn the loss of more than Microprose. Pirates. Civilization. Colonization. Railroad Tycoon. Transport Tycoon. Darklands. Master of Orion/Magic. The XCOM games. Every single one of those games is a cast-iron classic that – with the sole exception of Civilization – the various remakes/sequels just haven’t been able to touch.

    • Ginger Yellow says:

      “There is no company I mourn the loss of more than Microprose. Pirates. Civilization. Colonization. Railroad Tycoon. Transport Tycoon. Darklands. Master of Orion/Magic.”

      I was just discussing this with a mate the other day. Don’t forget all the amazing combat/racing sims: F19 Stealth Fighter, F1GP,M1 Tank Platoon…

    • Hentzau says:

      Sims aren’t really my thing – hence why I didn’t mention them; I’ve not played them – but I understand that that side of things was very good too. I’m honestly not sure I can think of another company that had such a high success rate. Classic Lucasarts, and possibly Bullfrog. That’s it.

    • Fumarole says:

      F19 and M1 were excellent games. I played them on a 286 with an amber monochrome monitor. Those were the days…

  17. Krondonian says:

    The Betrayal at Krondor link oddly goes to article about Zombie Panic: Source.

    I’d recommend the sequel, Return to Krondor, too. Beautiful pre-rendered backdrops, a decent turn based combat system and an interesting story, at least in part.

  18. Starky says:

    I’ll add in Syndicate wars, which after X-com was probably the best game on the Amiga/Dos (much better than the original Syndicate imo).

    • Nick says:

      hmm, collapsable buildings and nuclear grenades aside, I much prefered the original.

    • terry says:

      That’s like saying you prefer Deus Ex 2.

    • MrMud says:

      To the top!
      The original syndicate is where it is at. I could never get quite as in to syndicate wars (or the incredi-hard american revolt expansion for the original).

    • terry says:

      Sorry, that should have been @Starky. And I didn’t log in so I can’t edit. It’s been a long day.

    • Starky says:

      Maybe it is because I played the sequel first – but I went back and played Syndicate after it and while still brilliant prefered the second…

      But comparing it to Deus ex 2… that’s just low.

      More like Doom 1 vs Doom 2 – some people (probably a minority) prefer the second.

  19. Premium User Badge

    Frosty says:

    I went to Steam and GoG looking for Dungeon Keeper and Startopia. No success.:(

    Still I got X-Com and I can just pretend Evil Genius is a true sequel to Dungeon Keeper.

  20. Corporate Dog says:

    What, no game X?

    Errr, I mean, “What, no Jagged Alliance II?”

    • plugmonkey says:

      Amen to that. I came to JA2 quite late when it was recommended by another X-COM fan.

      I just kicked off new games of JA2: Wildfire and Terror from the Deep just yesterday, in fact.

    • Corporate Dog says:

      @plugmonkey: I picked up a copy in the discount bin (!!!!) at Electronics Boutique, back in 2000 or so, as I was going on a business trip, and wanted something to play on the road.

      I missed many training seminars that week.

    • Bret says:

      Terror from the Deep?

      You poor bastard.

    • plugmonkey says:

      I know. But I’ve never finished the bastard thing. I get to the multi-storey cruise liner Terror Site missions and then everyone dies and I give up. Then a few months later, I try again. :(

      Anyway, I got bored and started Silent Storm again instead. Never got on with it before, but I’m loving it at the moment.

  21. Taillefer says:

    I am so ready for a new X-COM. It’s a shame the Stargate license didn’t go to a similar game, all the concepts are well-suited. But, for those that aren’t aware, there’s a pretty excellent fan-made X-Com-alike: UFO: Alien Invasion. It’s not likely to win over new players, but fans of the original should find some enjoyment.

    Also, release candidate 1 of Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe was released recently: See here.
    With an associated shiny graphics project for it: Here.

  22. Starky says:

    Oh it is a crime that anyone could even think of a list like this and not include:

    War! Never been so much fun!
    War! Never been so much fun!

    • EaterOfCheese says:

      Thanks for that Starky, I enjoyed that immensely :) Go Cannon Fodder !

  23. Johann Tor says:

    Nice article, but a bit all over the place as far as ‘retro’ is concerned. It appears to have been written 2 years ago and it mentions some pretty recent games by my reckoning, like AvP, P:ST (an obligatory reference?) or Ground Control, and it makes me wonder at what point does it make sense to describe the past or a chunk of it as ‘retro’. Would I be retrogaming if I played say Morrowind, or Age of Mythology or Neverwinter Nights or Black and White? For me retro has more to do with nostalgia, with stuff I associate with an age at which I approached gaming more innocently (although not necessarily less intentionally). So, pretty hard to pitch retro just right and calling it ‘modern’ is just confusing.

    Anyway, I second the comments on the Amiga above. What made me switch from the Amiga to the PC was hassle-free adventure gaming (the 12 disks of Monkey Island 2 were particularly punishing) and the Wing Commander series. Even Dune 2 I played on the Amiga.

  24. Stupoider says:

    I miss the giant boxes that some games used to be in. :( It was really quite exciting opening them.

    • terry says:

      I found my box for KGB (aka Conspiracy, old Cryo game) in the attic and jesus, that thing is HUGE. I know the psychology behind big box and shelf space dominance and such from the latter days of the 8-bit platforms, but seriously – my local games store could only realistically order one copy of it because the box took up half a shelf and from memory it only contained a flimsy manual, a few (three? five?) disks and about fourteen cubic feet of bugger all. Ridiculous.

      I am definitely keeping it however, just so if I ever buy a dog he’ll have somewhere to live.

    • Hentzau says:

      Big boxes were nice, but I understand why they went. The one tangible drawback to games being packages in DVD cases, however, is that instead of a 150-page manual you can read on the toilet games companies now try to sum up the entirety of the game mechanics on a couple of sheets of tissue paper.

    • ohnoabear says:

      I hear you. I still have my copy of Homeworld’s manual which, in addition to the standard manual junk, has ~70 pages of excellent background material that’s never directly mentioned in the game at all.

      No way a company would do anything like that today.

    • malkav11 says:

      You’ve got your timing confused. Manuals went tissue-paper-sized long before they made the eminently sensible space-saving decision to go with DVD box packaging. You’d get a great big box and there’d be 15 pages of manual (mostly license information and “insert disc into computer” type instructions for the truly braindead or novice computer user) and a flimsy paper CD sleeve or two.

  25. Snall says:

    I want a re-make of Conquer 1042 AD, or whatever year the game said…modernly done could rock so hard…also I want a Hyborian grand strategy game…also your ad selector is trying to sell me long lashes…what?

  26. And Triage says:

    Wing Commander! You know, back when Mark Hamil did cutscenes and whatnot, when he wasn’t pouring his Star Wars money into his veins/nose.

  27. Dan Forinton says:

    In many respects, Evil Genius really felt like the game Dungeon Keeper was meant to be. All that’s needed is a mod to monkey things around and change it from mad THRUSH simulator (heh) to malevolent medieval keeperdom.

  28. Monchberter says:

    Dark Forces

    It’s on Steam.

    I have spoken

    • disperse says:

      Yeah, amazing FPS, playing that first was probably the reason why Half-Life one didn’t totally blow my mind.

  29. Pidesco says:

    I know there are many games that have to be missed by such a feature, but there are two games that I feel, had to be in it. Those are Jagged Alliance 2 and Alpha Centauri. Mostly because they are still the pinnacle of their respective genres (yes, JA2 is better than X-COM. Accept it.), and no one outside of the massive hardcore geek crowd knows about them

    • Taillefer says:

      I’ve never really placed JA2 and X-COM in the same genre. X-Com combines so many things I consider it a genre in itself.

    • Bret says:

      Lies and blasphamy.

      The blaster bomb shows your deceptions for what they are.

  30. Cabbs says:

    Dungeon Keeper
    Startopia
    Rollercoaster Tycoon

    These are the reasons that I havent played any management genre games recently, im pre-disposed to compare any such game to the above three and be dissapointed. This is my first designated grumpy-old-man subject, you see.

    Your dungeon is filled with yoghurt.

    • Sarlix says:

      Strawberry?

    • Cabbs says:

      I imagine it as one of those muller corner dessert varieties that seem to have been discontinued. Banoffee pie. mmmmm.

  31. Britpunk says:

    Brilliantly, I recently found Both parts of Ultima VII in a dark corner or a dusty old charity shop in deepest Kent. Fully boxed and everything. I imagine somebody’s mum had decided to clear out his old junk, only for him to return home from his adult life to discover what she’d done. Lets face it, we’ve all been there….

    At a fiver each, I think I got a bargain.

  32. Dominus says:

    correction!

    first 3D RPG was Ultima Underworld not Dungeon Master!

  33. bhlaab says:

    I’ve never been able to get into Xcom… the turn based combat feels great, but all the management sim stuff I can’t stand.

    • ohnoabear says:

      Then Jagged Alliance 2 is your game. Or Silent Storm, if you want a slightly more modern example.

      Jagged Alliance 2 is arguably a better turn-based tactical game than X-Com, it just doesn’t have all the management and research bits that make X-Com one of the best games ever made.

  34. Azazel says:

    If I have to pick one mid-90’s game to love that isn’t Doom 2 or something obvious, it would be:

    Shadow of the Horned Rat.

    YES MY LORD.

  35. bananaphone says:

    “Brilliantly, I recently found Both parts of Ultima VII in a dark corner or a dusty old charity shop in deepest Kent.”

    I walked past a charity shop the other day that had a Voodoo 5000 card in the window. So tempting…

  36. Sarlix says:

    There was a good Star Trek game I played off a floppy once, I think it may of been called ST 25th anniversary or something…One of the better ST games I’ve played.

    • Lachlan says:

      ST: 25th Anniversary, and an equally good sequel ST:Judgment Rights. Both huge, seriously good point-and-click puzzle games with a bit of space combat thrown in.

  37. Britpunk says:

    Just a couple of my own faves to add:

    Little Big Adventure. Wonderfully beautiful adventure game. Very French.
    Sensible Soccer. Pure arcade perfection.
    Sim City 2000. Best of the series, obviously.
    Sim Tower. Never did get that cathedral.
    Settlers 2. Too many entire weekends swallowed in the pursuit of a good place to stick a tin mine.

  38. DaveyJones says:

    Erm. Tales Of Valor? Someone explain/link. All I can find is the damn CoH stand-alone expansion.

  39. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Nice reading, Alec. Many thanks.

    Back in the days I was much into strategy, wargames and RPGs. So a few titles did crop up my mind that I don’t think were mentioned (but you justified this well enough). In any case, here they are as being some of the unmentioned games I had most fun with (in addition to some of the mentioned ones:

    – Fantasy General. A well ahead of its time wargame by SSI) and is yet to meet a challenger.
    – Blood & Magic. Need I say more on the genre of strategy?
    – Dark Legions. Another SSI classic and unique game waiting for another game to challenge it.
    – Master of Orion. I mean, ‘nough said.

    – SSI Gold box adventure series. Pool of Radiance and others. You actually had to draw the game maps yourself and take notes as you moved along. Complex, lengthy games immensely fun at that time.
    – Eye of The Beholder Trilogy. A classic in its own right. Especially if you were aan AD&D pen and paper freak as many of us were back in those days.
    – Shadowcaster. A very innovative RPG. Loved it.

  40. Sobric says:

    I’d like to champion The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, purely for nostalgia rather than thinking that this was a pinnacle of 1st person RPGs. I have it, I loved it, and it still scares the shit out of me now and again (when playing it. The disc doesn’t hide in dark corners of my house or anything). Morrowind was a worthy successor in some ways, but Oblivion didn’t come close to the scope of Daggerfall.

  41. sebmojo says:

    The only way to play XCOM is ALL CAPS IRON MAN. Makes nightime terror missions even more crazily intense when you’re down to the last squaddie standing on a pile of your buddies’ corpses firing wildly into the dark.

  42. jti says:

    Daggerfall. Ones I navigated through the random maze for 4 hours after I had competed what I came for (didn’t have the spell to get out yet) and finally found the exit. And as it loaded the outside air the game crashed and I hadn’t saved for an hour. Never went back after that.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      A game design “mistake” some modern games try to avoid perhaps overdoing it and making games challenges not depend on patience and persistence anymore. Which is a shame.

      I remember the Daggerfall maze. It’s not just you who got burned by it. And for similar reasons. However, do you feel like I do? A longing for more concrete challenges like those?

      I mean, I’ve played MUDs that would require 3 hours just to reach the uber mob you wanted to farm. And another 3 hours farming it between respawns of 30 minutes each. And if you got killed then, retrieving your corpse would be simply impossible because after 2 hours it would disappear. This often meant losing months or years of godly equipment earned at great costs. And yet… We would go there and it was an hell of a party. I so much miss that in modern games. I’d give my toes for a single-player game that gave me the same experience.

    • jti says:

      That is quite extreme, but I agree that challenge is good. You still get it in some games. Fantasy Wars is a good example.

  43. Casimir's Blake says:

    So glad to see System Shock mentioned here. It’s truly a staggering game and my only complaint is that…I’ve completed it. With the mouselook mod, and to the FM strains of Autechre’s “Oversteps”, that was a glorious gaming week. But still, it’s done. And there are no more levels for it. :(

    Edit: It’s pleasing to see all the work that is going into Ultima Underworld and System Shock remakes. But crikey I’m desperate for more levels to play. I think it was RPS’s own Alec Meer that stated he preferred a unique experience to the act of “achieving achievements” or something to that effect. I’m with you there. Desperate for more System Shock 2 mods, too…

  44. Casimir's Blake says:

    So glad to see System Shock mentioned here. It’s truly a staggering game and my only complaint is that…I’ve completed it. With the mouselook mod, and to the FM strains of Autechre’s “Oversteps”, that was a glorious gaming week. But still, it’s done. And there are no more levels for it. :(

    Edit: It’s pleasing to see all the work that is going into Ultima Underworld and System Shock remakes. But crikey I’m desperate for more levels to play. I think it was RPS’s own Alec Meer that stated he preferred a unique experience to the act of “achieving achievements” or something to that effect. I’m with you there. Desperate for more System Shock 2 mods, too…

  45. NAJoe says:

    Crusader: No Remorse
    I played through it again about a year ago and found that it is still highly enjoyable. It maybe doesn’t reach the pinnacle that many of the games mentioned earlier do, but I haven’t found a game with such a satisfying combination slightly puzzle-y levels, cheesy yet interesting story and setting, choice of weapons and items, gruesome deaths, and “unique” control scheme. (Now that I think about it, the STALKER games might be pretty close.) Not to mention the awesome low-budget FMV sequences.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      and if it wasn’t enough, it had incredible graphics at the time. Heck, still looks gorgeous today.

  46. Arthur Barnhouse says:

    I can’t even tell you how much it warms my heart to see Marathon and Marathon II mentioned in here. I’ve always thought people didn’t appreciate just how good that game was, particularly in light of how much effort the game put into creating a plot that you wanted to see to the end.

    • bhlaab says:

      It also warms my heart to see Marathon Infinity NOT mentioned.

    • Bret says:

      Do you feel an “Oh, Snap!” or a “Ba-Zing!” is more called here?

      Because, at minimum, that needs a rim shot.

    • Arthur Barnhouse says:

      I don’t recall Infinity being that bad, though I can’t recall it being good either. It’s funny that Marathon Rubicon, a free game made by fans was way better.

  47. G Manning says:

    I got X-Com UFO defense on a steal deal a while back. I started it up having never, ever heard of it before. Had no idea even what genre it was.
    At first, I was a bit underwhelmed by the graphics, but I can easily look beyond them. The first map I had to move my men out of some sort of space ship. They got killed by aliens and I quit. I had no idea what I was doing. Haven’t tried it again since.

    • Zerai says:

      Why did you have to get me in my X-com mode?

      First of all, you don’t get out of your ship, you throw a smoke grenade and then establish a perimeter, your men must move in pairs, from cover to cover, if you can’t leave them in cover, either don’t move or get them prone, also, auto-shot tends to be the best at the start

      Well, someone else will continue this, hopefully

    • Bret says:

      Well, I guess it’s my job to be both helpful and iconoclastic.

      Helpful: Research lasers and buy a tank immediately. Tank scouts, soldiers snipe from a safe distance. Aliens can’t shoot what they don’t see, and the tank can afford to take a hit. Lasers pack enough punch to down anything. Kneel before shooting.

      Iconoclastic: Never used smoke grenades. Maybe useful, some swear by them, but me? Never.

      I also savescummed my first couple campaigns, and reloaded a bit on later ones. Real ironman is quite fun, but it’s a bit tenser than one would like starting out.

    • Taillefer says:

      Lasers? You use slowest scanning and detect the one-man/alien pod on the first day, then you get his plasma weapon to research from day one. :P

    • Nick says:

      I much prefered lasers to plasma.. I completed the game with them. Unlike in TFTD, where sonic weapons were much better than shitty gauss.

    • Bret says:

      Plasma?

      Plasma?

      Philistine. You’d talk over a screening of Casablanca.

      First thing to note: Plasma is expensive. The money you sorely need for the first is being wasted on clips.

      Second, it’s slow research. You’ll have laser rifles before a plasma pistol, the likely first recovered weapon.

      Third: Non-heavy plasmas are way, way worse than lasers for most jobs. Slower, and the greater punch is overkill for the first month. Sure, it’s a tad more accurate, but…

      Well, the speed of laser autoshot gets you better odds most of the time.

      Plasma gives you a month of worse money, no new tech, and when you get it, if it ain’t heavy, obsolete gear when you’re done.

      Mug’s game.

  48. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Marathon! Yes! *ahem* Sorry. Mac game gets name-called. Kinda had to, you know. ;)

    Not to mention they’re my favourite FPS games.

  49. SheffieldSteel says:

    I can’t pass this by without mentioning…
    1. Battle Isle (2 or 3, for preference) – the classic combination of hex and death
    2. Fragile Allegiance – asteroid mining meets early RTS
    3. Soulbringer – probably the easiest RPG to mod, since its script files were plain-text*

    * and I wrote most of them. Hahaha.

    • Nick says:

      Oh, the music in fragile allegiance was beautifully atmospheric.. I really liked that game.

    • Flimgoblin says:

      Speaking of Battle Isle. I remember History Line 1914-1918 totally drawing me in to the setting.